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Antitrust case could be Armageddon

Fast forward to a high-definition picture of sports late in 2010. Here is the news of the day, scrawling across the bottom of your TV screen or mobile Web device: • LeBron James, who had been expecting a free-agency bonanza when his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers expired after the 2009-2010 season, opens the 2010-11 season with … the Cavs, the only team with the right to sign him. Cleveland retains the NBA MVP by slotting his salary into the new league-wide scale. • Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the hottest commodity for every opening in the NFL over the past six months, signs on to be the new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys … at a league-determined salary that will pay him far less than he'd have made if the Denver Broncos had chosen him over Josh McDaniels in 2009. • The Ricketts family, new owner of the Chicago Cubs, scraps plans for its own cable channel because Major League Baseball has barred all such broadcasts, as well as webcasts, by individual teams. • A young Detroit Red Wings fan who has saved his pennies for months shells out $300 to buy a replica sweater that would have cost him $80 in 2009. • Lockouts and strikes loom large in all four major team sports as an era of relative peace on the sports labor front ends and owners begin to exercise their new power over player unions. Unlikely? Discouraging? It could happen. All of those scenarios, in fact, could become realities if the NFL triumphs in a case now under consideration in the U.S. Supreme Court. Experts agree that the case known as American Needle vs. NFL could easily be the most significant legal turning point in the history of American sports. If the high court rules in favor of the NFL, the development will be more important to the sports industry than Curt Flood's battle against the reserve clause in the 1970s; than baseball's collusion cases in the mid-'80s; than the NFL players union's epic fight for free agency in a series of antitrust cases that stretched over a decade; and even than the enactment of the Sports Broadcasting Act in 1961, which is the legislation that is the foundation of the NFL's television riches.
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